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Discourse and Sexiness
Fischli & Weiss at the Tate Modern

They construct cities out of slices of sausage and pose existential questions such as “Do I suffer from good taste?” or “Is a bus coming?” Fischli & Weiss create a field of tension that oscillates between comedy and profundity. Now, the Tate Modern in London is showing the first retrospective of their work in Great Britain. Julia Grosse on the absurd, subversive stagings of the Swiss artist duo.

Untitled, 1991, © Peter Fischli / David Weiss
Deutsche Bank Collection

It’s a little like with Bouvard and Pécuchet, the tragicomical heroes from Gustave Flaubert’s novel of the same name who renounce their professions to dedicate themselves wholly to acquiring knowledge of as encyclopedic a scope as possible. From gardening, medicine, and classical studies to education and politics, they greedily attempt to absorb everything they can get their hands on. They’re doomed to failure, of course, as their endeavor to acquire a general idea of each discipline of human knowledge gradually comes to resemble a slapstick number. They know everything, but nothing in any real way.

Mick Jagger and Brian Jones going home satisfied after composing
'I Can't Get No Satisfaction', from: Suddenly this Overview, 1981,
©the artists

On the other hand, Peter Fischli and David Weiss mold instead of read. Their work Suddenly This Overview (1981) consists of innumerable small-scale scenarios made of unfired clay in which the artists try to cover all the most important dates of history. Lopsided and crooked, the work looks like an amused celebration of universal dilettantism. Now, the Tate Modern is showing over 50 of these sculptures in a major Fischli & Weiss retrospective called Flowers & Questions. The grandiose work’s answer to what constitutes the true historical canon, however, is highly subjective. It portrays scenes from the Bible, major sporting events, or moments of popular culture – Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, for instance, pleased with themselves after having just composed their great hit I Can’t Get No Satisfaction. Or, in the broadest sense, climactic moments of science: the Einsteins in bed after conceiving their genius.

Airport, 1989/ 2000, © the artists

Yet while Flaubert’s anti-heroes Bouvard and Pécuchet invest their time and energy in a futile accumulation of education, Fischli & Weiss, who have been collaborating since 1979, take this humanist ideal of pleasure in the acquisition of knowledge and carry it into the comical, without, however, allowing cynicism to taint their laborious clay encyclopedia. Despite the naked irony lurking under the duo’s feigned ingenuousness, they never pretend to know any more than the viewer. They deliberately create a field of tension in which their works can be misunderstood as superficial, naïve, or even, for that matter, truly profound. And it’s precisely because the Swiss artists stick to this ambivalent tactic that their work subversively calls the roles of both the viewer and the artist into question.

Natural Grace 134, from: Quiet Afternoon, 1984 Courtesy Kunsthaus Zurich, © the artists

In the Tate Modern, director Vicente Todoli has now personally curated the major retrospective. The show will travel to the Kunsthaus Zurich next summer, and after that to the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. Although there will be a core work common to each of these locations, the exhibitions are not identical. Not all visitors, at least not in London, will know the classics that Fischli & Weiss became internationally known for, such as the filmed chain reaction of moving objects, The Way Things Go (1987), or the multimedia installation that won an award in Venice in 2003, with its 100 apparently meaningless questions such as "Why does nothing never happen?", "Is a bus coming?", or "Have I never been completely awake?"

Fashion Show, from: Sausage Photographs, 1979,
Courtesy Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, © the artists

In Zurich on the other hand, where the two live and work, the show at the Kunsthaus is a kind of home game. Together with Fischli & Weiss, curator Bice Curiger is also responsible for the conception of the extensive catalogue. She was the first to exhibit a work by the two in the 1980 Zurich exhibition Saus und Braus, the legendary Sausage Series . The photographs marked the beginning of their collaboration and can also be seen in London. Cities arise out of greasy sausage, slices of bologna, and chunks of cheese in which pickles and cigarette butts become actors; there are carpet stores, car accidents, and fashion shows – normal everyday insanity of the kind Paul McCarthy lovingly celebrates with the luxuries of our consumerist society. In the early eighties, art critics found the works of Fischli & Weiss, who are influenced by popular culture, too humorous; they didn’t suspect that the very same moment they were condemning them as being silly, they had also succumbed to them.

Untitled, 1991, © Peter Fischli / David Weiss
Deutsche Bank Collection

The Swiss artists began making Super-8 films and, in their wonderful 30-minute piece The Least Resistance (1981), staged one of the most sharp-witted film dialogues ever to take place on the subject of art. Dressed as a bear and a rat, the two artists are standing in a gallery of abstract sculptures, trying to talk about them intelligently: "Very tasteful… harmonious and balanced… with a clear forcefulness… purely decorative… do you think we could do that too? I haven’t gotten around to thinking here yet." Uninvited, they relax at the pool of the wealthy art scene as the camera pans over casually placed issues of Flash Art, porno magazines, and illustrated Mondrian volumes. Already back then, this setting summed up a kind of astonishingly precise reflection, a statement one always assumed magazines like Texte zur Kunst had invented: discourse and sexiness.

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